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S&H Interview

Magnus Lindberg in interview with Marc Bridle

The Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg, three days older than his immediate contemporary Esa-Pekka Salonen, with whom he is programming a festival of his own music on the South Bank, is now one of the leading composer’s of his generation. Charismatic, and with a rigorous intellectual streak in conversation, it might on the surface be difficult to equate Lindberg the man with Lindberg the composer. In one sense the highly articulate and quietly spoken man sat opposite me in the London offices of Boosey & Hawkes is the very antithesis of the young composer who wrote Kraft (1985), a work of extreme rhythmic punch and rough sonority, and one which at times can seem as abrasive as the punk sounds which directly inspired it. Yet Lindberg has changed – his later works display more contrapuntal compositional rules, even if the sense of virtuosity and electricity still remains. And so does that radical edge to the composer who wrote Kraft.

The South Bank concerts, which are also being performed in Paris and Brussels, start in late November and continue through to February, programming works by Sibelius, Berg, Varèse and Stravinsky alongside Lindberg’s own music, five of which are receiving either their UK or London premieres. The impetus for this series, named after a 1997 work and called Related Rocks: The World of Magnus Lindberg, goes back to the mid-seventies when Salonen and Lindberg thought of the idea of holding a music festival which put a contemporary composer’s own work into a broader musical context. The raison d’être was not just to have a contemporary music festival, but one which showed the extent of musical influences on contemporary composers. Their aim was to make it as broad as possible, but as Lindberg says, ‘not to find the most unknown scores, although I could easily have put together a festival with pieces that only a handful of people knew, but one that put together works which were influential, like the Rite of Spring and Les Noces, Mandarin and so on. Actually, the reason for this festival is very selfish – we tried to find works that were among the best of the twentieth century repertoire, but ones that are not that often played but which when put together in this context brings freshness to the programming. On top of that, I wanted to include some thematic ideas – such as the linking of east and west. If you look at some of the pieces played in this series the barometer moves more closely towards east than west. It partly goes back to our visit to St Petersburg when my cello concerto was played at the Mravinsky Theatre. The cultural influence in St Petersburg was just overwhelming.’

The second concert of the series pairs Sibelius’ Kullervo against Lindberg’s Kraft, two very different but similarly epic works. I suggested to Lindberg that these two works perhaps represented the two extremes of Finnish music, and perhaps offered a greater contrast than in any other concert. ‘Yes, certainly. The audience knows Sibelius quite well – but no one knows Kullervo. It is perhaps less evident to an audience what Kullervo stands for because the cultural climate in Finland 100 years ago really didn’t exist. Culture did exist, of course, but when Sibelius wrote his First Symphony in 1899 it was literally that – the first Finnish symphony. Kraft happens to have been written at the same age that Sibelius wrote Kullervo – and Kraft has been referred to as ‘Sibelius’ Kullervo’ in that it is the work of an angry young man, all bang-on-a-can and so on. Musically they are far apart – when I wrote Kraft in the mid-eighties the influence of Sibelius was not important to me; today he means more to me, although I grew up around Sibelius, couldn’t avoid his music. Today I see him, not necessarily technically, but on an expressive level, as much more important. It makes sense putting the two together. In Schleswig Holstein we put Finlandia, the Violin Concerto, the Seventh Symphony – and then Kraft in one concert. I liked the programme, but it was of course a three hour concert.’

Lindberg’s first compositional style was heavily indebted to serialism and the mood set by composers such as Stockhausen and Milton Babbitt. Latterly, his style has moved progressively towards the differing sound worlds of Berio, Stravinsky and the syncopated styles of progressive rock and ethnic music. What has always been a Lindberg trait is the undisguised speed with which his music evolves, kaleidoscopic in colour and driven by a furious intensity. There is always a long-range harmonic thinking, as Oliver Knussen characterised it. Looking at Aura (1993-4) and Engine (1996) is like looking at two sides of the same coin: in the former there is a reconstructed grasp of the symphonic, in the latter a more concise work edging towards a smaller ensemble. In both there is a sense of friction, and at least in Engine a profound look back to what he did in Kraft. It is one of his more monolithic works of recent years.

Yet, Lindberg has a perfectionism to his compositional style which makes him a slow working composer (‘two years to write twenty minutes of music’, he jokes). Recently, he was asked by Irvine Arditti to compose a string quartet and had spent almost a year working on it before he discovered he was not quite ready for the format. ‘It didn’t come out as the piece that I wanted, the piece that I thought it might be. I had to say sorry to Irvine – but it was important mentally for me to take that step. I had to say I needed more time – and it might not be another 10 years before I complete it’. He is not, however, naïve about producing masterworks after masterworks. ‘I am sometimes remembered of the composer who was said there are seven masterpieces but I’m not going to tell you which they are.’ Statistically, composers live longer with bigger pieces and Lindberg is no exception. ‘If I look at the work around Kraft this was important, as was the time around Aura ten years later – and Aura is a work where more or less all the elements that I tried to write are present. Just before coming here I finished a small suite for cello solo but it took up a lot of energy and took a long time to complete. Writing for orchestra, or for solo instrument, you just have to be inspired. It is something which you have to keep going, like conversation, otherwise it soon becomes alien.’

Contemporary music still poses problems for audiences (at a recent Pollini recital Stockhausen was greeted with fidgeting and polite applause). Lindberg thinks that London audiences are perhaps as receptive as those elsewhere, but people still have a problem understanding, or even tolerating, contemporary classical music. ‘Whilst London has an enormous wealth of music, Paris has an almost ghettoised music life’, a part defence of our London music scene. As Lindberg says, ‘I don’t ask people to understand music in any technical sense because I don’t understand music in the same sense that you understand a set phrase in a language. Music is much more complex and the semantics are not really about comprehension. What makes this serious music different from commercial music is that its function is not the same as dance music or music you have on in the background. The only thing you should ask is to sit down and concentrate on it – if you don’t listen to it, it is merely a disturbance. It is the same as listening to a Beethoven symphony. You cannot listen to a Beethoven symphony in the background. It is a drama and you have to take it as it comes. Fortunately, contemporary music is not taken to duration in the same way that the big symphonic repertoire is. Filling up half an hour of contemporary music is tricky and demanding and huge so that half an hour becomes a long, long work. Big works also grow over the years – hearing Beethoven’s Seventh for the first time is one experience, but hearing it for the hundredth time it seems so much greater a piece. It is partly about the grammar of what you write: there is a sense of logic in what I can do and in what I can’t do and in the process of working on it I am always aware of keeping control over it so it falls into a shape that communicates something to someone hearing it. There is an expression to it that makes it communicative. It is not about making a manifesto – otherwise I’d write it down on paper – I don’t have a political or social point to make. Music is something which is about emotion. It is an experience.’

As if to illustrate the point that a composer’s early works can often be their most seminal, Kraft crops up in our conversation time and time again. It is a bold work (even for the time) yet whilst having a definable influence in its composition (Darmstadt) it somehow goes beyond what other contemporaries of Lindberg might have done with the work. It’s attraction lies as much in the iconoclasm of its theatrical and visual spectacle (members of the orchestra, playing an array of junk percussion, invade the auditorium) as it does in the Berlin punk, and Krautrock, music which drive’s through the work like a thunderbolt. It is music which Lindberg still finds compelling. ‘The reason I liked punk music from the early eighties is because it falls outside the tonal framework. A lot of good rock music had been done – I grew up with Pink Floyd and Emerson Lake & Palmer – they did wonderful things and it is music that on many levels has been important to me. These progressive groups appeal to me – the Rolling Stones and the Beatles – their world is alien to me. It would not be true to say it did not mean anything because the quality of their pieces is amazing but the expression wasn’t so compelling or important. I was living in Berlin at the time when I wrote Kraft and the alternative scene in the clubs was quite amazing. They worked with noise as a physical element. They have an urban, industrial sound element to them – but people often refer to Kraft as being aggressive in its sonority which I don’t think it is. An aggressive sound is something like treading on a snail – it is gentle, almost quiet, but the snail dies so it is an aggressive sound. The noise of traffic, or the demolition and construction of buildings all means something – and I wanted these elements to be present and my task was then to organise them in a way that made sense. It was about making a wider palate of sound, putting together abstract elements. Its beauty is the fact that it is not tonal, that it doesn’t come from the tonic or diatonic sound world. It felt fresh, much in the same way that I would assume Debussy felt when he first heard a Gamalan orchestra which produced sound as remote as possible from a western symphony orchestra’s.’

Lindberg’s musical output has largely been concentrated on orchestral or chamber/tape works. The human voice, however, has so far played little part in his compositional repertoire. There are works for choirs – such as an untitled 1978 work which uses a twenty voice mixed chorus, or Songs from North and South (1993) which uses a children’s chorus, but nothing for the solo voice in the way that Boulez or Berio have been attracted to the instrument. The 1999 cello concerto (the nearest style of orchestral work which approaches the scale of the voice) prompted me to ask whether in fact he may be about to write something for it. ‘ Basically, I don’t have anything against the voice, but have grown up doing virtuoso music and believing in virtuosity as something important today. The contemporary vocal writing which I admire and love, of Berio in the sixties for example, brought the human voice into so many different types of genre – such as the cycle, the recital – that I did not really see where I could go from there. I did not want to return to melodic writing, which I have always tried to avoid. It is not quite my world. However, if you do want to write for the voice then you do have solve the problem of melody and that is something I have found difficult. I like the voice – and have worked with it in opera houses – but it has never really formed part of my work. I’ve been thinking of an opera for more than ten years but I’m nowhere near writing it, but if I did I would want every element to work in parallel so the libretto and the music were composed simultaneously, staging etc. But at the moment it is very much a hypothetical question.’

Lindberg does not entirely work on a commission basis, yet describes himself as a freelance composer. Commissions have come from a variety of sources: the London Sinfonietta, the Tapiola Choir, IRCAM, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, but he says that the ‘technique with working with commissions is to make the commissions look like the things that you wanted to do. In most of the cases those who ask me for new works are very gentle in what they propose so it is not about being asked to write a particular work it is about striking a balance between your original intention and what is wanted. The dream would be to write a work and then sell it. I’m working on a clarinet concerto now for next autumn and I limited work on it for a long time. However, it somehow gives discipline to a composer because my interest could lean one way or the other, but now I am writing this concerto I somehow force myself into that domain – and I’m quite happy about doing it because it does bring discipline into the process. As I mentioned with the string quartet sometimes I can’t get the discipline into it and then you have to be honest and just hope it does not happen too often. It’s important to produce what you promise. People just go somewhere else otherwise.’

The events of the 11th September partly bring to mind Adorno’s often quoted remark that after Auschwitz poetry could no longer exist. Some commentators have already detected a shift in artistic and cultural values, but I wondered what Lindberg had made of Stockhausen’s now notorious remark about the terrorism which blighted a landscape. ‘I don’t think that he intended to say what he did. I don’t think you can isolate the spectacular bit of what happened, but I think he was careless in referring to it in the way that he did. I wouldn’t have said anything about it. I can feel the spectacle of a volcano erupting, which is something greater than us and which gives an image and gives an impression of something being greater than we are. A volcano does what it does. The New York thing is something different – so I don’t count it as a spectacle and in that sense I don’t agree with what he said. I also don’t think there is anything musically one can say about those events either.’

Magnus Lindberg is a man of many masks: a composer whose compositions stretch from classicism to neo-punk, a teacher and concert programmer, a pianist and conductor. He seems the complete musician, in many ways the natural heir to Boulez. Related Rocks will reveal some of those elements and more of one of the most pioneering composers in the world today.

Marc Bridle

November 2001



Related Rocks: The World of Magnus Lindberg opens on the South Bank on 27th November with Lindberg’s Cantigas and closes on 10th February with a performance of his Aura. The Philharmonia Orchestra will be conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen throughout the series (other concerts include the London Sinfonietta and the Arditti Quartet).

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